Blimey, Beef. Who writes your scripts?
The question was made immortal in the world of cricket by former England captain Graham Gooch, directed toward his talismanic teammate Ian Botham at The Oval in 1986 in a Test against New Zealand. Botham, back playing after a three-month ban for admitting to the use of marijuana, had taken a wicket off his first ball bowled, which also got him level with Dennis Lillee's then-world-record tally of 355 Test wickets.
If Gooch was present at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai on May 25, 2014, he would've probably added a colourful word or two to his phrase.
The Wankhede Stadium holds a special place among fans of Indian cricket ever since that six by MS Dhoni in the final of the 2011 World Cup. That six—that immortal six which ended a 28-year wait for India to win the big cup. No matter how many more sixes are hit at the Wankhede, none can ace that six by Dhoni.
Mumbai Indians wicketkeeper-batsman Aditya Tare had no intention of trying to steal Dhoni's thunder. But after what he pulled off on Sunday night at the Wankhede, he might just have given Dhoni some serious competition.
But before we get there, some background.
It is the last league game of the seventh edition of the Indian Premier League. The two teams playing, Mumbai Indians and Rajasthan Royals, are contesting for the last available place in the playoffs and a spot in the Champions League Twenty20 later in the year.
The Mumbai Indians, the defending champions, have reached here against all odds. After beginning the season with five straight losses, they strung together six wins in the next eight games to give themselves a shot.
The Rajasthan Royals started the tournament well, notching six wins in their first nine games and were sitting pretty in the top three, needing just two wins in their remaining five matches to seal qualification. It is here that the wheels started coming off as the Royals inexplicably made bizarre changes to their side by dropping key players and won just one out of four games coming into Sunday.
The equation favoured the Royals as the match began. Mumbai needed to chase whatever target that was set for them in 14.3 overs, or 87 balls. Anything above 160, and it seemed like curtains for the defending champs.
The Royals got almost 30 runs more than what looked like a safe score. A couple of blistering half-centuries from youngsters Sanju Samson (74 off 47 balls) and Karun Nair (50 off 27 balls) got them as far as 189 for four in 20 overs. Mumbai needed to score 190 in just 87 balls, at more than 13 runs an over.
It was surely, surely, surely curtains?
The Wankhede did not lose hope. There had been some spectacular happenings at the venue in the past, and the match wasn't over until the fat lady sang. As Michael Hussey and Lendl Simmons walked out, you wouldn't have been able to hear yourself yell on a microphone.
Simmons, fresh from the season's first and only century, started brilliantly with three boundaries in the first over. However, the West Indian's excitement was to get the better of him soon as he misconnected a pull and found mid-off in the very next over.
This brought Corey Anderson out to the crease. The Kiwi batsman, bought by Mumbai for $750,000 in the auction, had come with a reputation of big hitting following the fastest century ever in one-day cricket earlier this year, off 36 balls.
However, his first IPL season, before Sunday, could only be described as a colossal failure as he returned scores of 2, 18, 39, 13, 1, 35, 6, 18* and 18, before being dropped for Mumbai's last three matches before Sunday. His drafting in for a must-win game seemed like a wild card.
Anderson started brightly, as he and Hussey together bludgeoned 34 runs in two overs to keep Mumbai in the game. But just as you thought Mumbai were in with a chance again, Hussey was to be deceived by medium pacer Kevon Cooper's deceptive variation. Fifty-three for two in the fifth over.
Out walked Kieron Pollard. This was surely Mumbai's last throw of the dice. The man was known to do superhuman things on the cricket field. He had already taken two stunning catches in the tournament—one in this match itself—but Mumbai needed him to perform with the bat. He was, surely, their last hope.
For a few precious seconds, Pollard raised hopes as he cracked Cooper powerfully over deep midwicket for six on his second ball faced. The Wankhede went berserk.
The very next ball, you could hear a pin drop as the Trinidadian was foxed by a slower one and gave a simple catch to square leg. Sixty-one for three in five overs. Game over?
The in-form Mumbai captain, Rohit Sharma, came in next. He was no Pollard, but he knew how to hit a ball and score runs quickly. He had scored a double century in one-day internationals not too long ago. The Wankhede continued to show its faith, even as the stadium DJ was forced to shut shop following Mumbai city's 10 p.m. deadline of playing music on loudspeakers.
Together with Anderson, Sharma brought the house and the equation down to 86 required off 33 after eight overs. It had definitely been achieved before.
However, the Mumbai skipper holed out to the sweeper soon enough and washed away Mumbai's last remaining hopes. Not while I'm still alive, said Ambati Rayudu as he walked to the crease at No. 6.
Rayudu and Anderson set about Mission Impossible by knocking down the equation in arithmetic progression, almost. Eighty-two off 32 became 51 off 21, to 33 off 15, to 20 off nine, to finally nine off three deliveries, at the end of the 14th over.
On 94 off just 43 balls, the stage was set for Anderson to blast his critics away with a fairy-tale match-winning century. But he could only get a single with a thick edge to third man off James Faulkner's short-pitched delivery.
Eight off two required; two fours would do the trick. Rayudu decided to do better as he smashed an inviting, juicy full-toss on leg-stump over fine-leg for maximum. The Wankhede was on the verge of erupting; they had just trolled the loud music deadline.
And then, like a roller coaster that had reached its peak and came hurtling down, Rayudu misconnected the next delivery and was run-out trying for an impossible second run. Down he went on his knees, exhausted, sobbing, even as some of the Royals in the dugout celebrated.
But wait, it wasn't over. If you thought the Duckworth-Lewis calculations were baffling, try the net run-rate ones. After a huge animated conference between players and officials in the middle, and commentators correcting themselves thrice on air, it was finally concluded that Mumbai could still qualify if they scored a boundary off the next delivery.
The Wankhede, by now, had quietened down to an excited buzz. The fans were as confused as the players with all the pandemonium transpiring in front of them. In the midst of all that chaos, perhaps the only person to cut a relaxed, nonchalant figure was the incoming batsman, Aditya Tare.
The Mumbai wicketkeeper-batsman walked out to the middle vigorously chewing something. As the rest of the people on the ground ran helter-skelter confirming the calculations, he just watched the drama unfold with a face that would put a quality poker player to shame. A team-mate from the dugout who ran out to inform him of the target was greeted by a casual nod. Chill, bro, I'm here.
Finally, we were back on track. The field was set and spread around the ropes; the Wankhede was about to go mental.
Faulkner ran in...and bowled another full-toss on leg stump. Crack.
Tare is running toward his dugout with his shirt pulled up to cover his face and arms wide open, not very different from a football celebration. Shane Watson, the Rajasthan skipper, is close to tears. Rahul Dravid, the Royals mentor and unarguably the calmest cricketer ever to be produced, has tossed his cap away in disgust.
The ball had gone sailing over square-leg, almost magnetically pulled in by the berserk Wankhede crowd. Tare had hit another epic last-ball six at the venue, which might not have won the World Cup, but was nowhere less important to him and his team.
Mumbai were through to the play-offs. Not five matches ago, anyone would have scoffed at such a suggestion. They were never supposed to get there.
Did they deserve to get there? You bet.
After losing their first five matches on the trot, if you still manage to come through, you deserve to be there. After losing two of your best bowlers, Zaheer Khan and Lasith Malinga, at various stages of the season, if you still manage to come through, you deserve to be there. After needing an impossible 190 in 87 deliveries, if you still manage to come through, you deserve to be there.
You couldn't even say that the Mumbai Indians had sneaked through the gap. They had bulldozed their way through. Even if they do end up conceding their title in the next couple of games, their entire campaign would always be defined by this one game.
For that matter, this entire season would always be defined by this one game.
After languishing at the bottom of the table for more than one-third of the tournament, and in the bottom half at the beginning of all matches in the league stage, Mumbai have achieved the first impossible fairy tale of qualifying for the playoffs.
Surely, surely, surely, they can't achieve another one the following Sunday?
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